Inundated and Occupied

Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine, by Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Kareem Rabie, American University

Reading Waste Siege in 2020 under a near-global quarantine, it is becoming clear that even universal threats overlap topographies of profoundly disproportionate risk and state management that were baked in decades ago. Seemingly natural phenomena are distributed spatially on the basis of social relations, structural racism, political economy and disinvestment in social reproduction and infrastructure; this pandemic exposes preexisting social conditions and comorbidities. Although Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’ marvelous new book is about waste management in Palestine, it asks extremely timely and relevant questions about the putative universality of environmental threats, mobility, fixity, political violence, and state governance.

Waste Siege is an ethnography of life in Palestine that begins by trying to understand the overwhelming amount of stuff moving, settling, leaking, being tamped down in the West Bank, and how it all shapes “forms of sociality, politics, and self-understanding for people living under conditions of nonsovereignty” (p. 5). Indebted to approaches in STS and ANT but not wedded to them, Stamatopoulou-Robbins finds that waste is an actor, a context, a form of infrastructure, and a “technique of violence” (p. 10). Typically, the management and storage of waste is a question of state, but in the Palestinian West Bank (governed through its “phantom state”) it is outsourced to international aid groups, driven by occupation and donor concerns, or distributed downwards towards everyday life.

Waste Siege ought to appeal to scholars in the emerging field of discard studies and science and technology studies, as well as scholars of Palestine and Israel, infrastructure, and contemporary state theory. It is at once truly ethnographic, filled with reflections, sensitivity and specificity, and detailed renderings. But, it is also a theorization of how seemingly objective knowledge and politics, and ideological practices and relations, structure and deepen political difference. Each chapter in Waste Siege begins with a specific focus—a landfill and municipal/NGO project; used-goods markets; dumpsters and door handles in Ramallah neighborhoods; technical meetings about cross-border waste management—and examines the things, practices, and stuff of waste. She shows us how garbage is managed under occupation, how old commodities travel from Israel to second-hand markets in the West Bank, how stale bread creates a moral and class conundrum for Palestinians, and how all these flows of waste become objects of expert knowledge and international attention.

The primary theoretical contribution that Waste Siege makes in discard studies is that waste is not ontologically opposed to nature or the environment. Contra Mary Douglas’ definition of dirt as culturally categorized, rejected, “matter out of place,” Palestine is inundated by waste amounting to an entire ecology of “matter with nowhere to go.” Even as it changes forms, Stamatopoulou-Robbins demonstrates, waste is always present as a social and political product and actor. Few Palestinians “articulate their dissatisfaction with the impact of waste in environmentalist terms” (p. 216). Instead, more along the lines of the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the histories of private extraction and public dumping in Indigenous communities in the North American West, political calculations and the distribution of risk are part of the makeup of waste and its environmental impact. This is clear in Palestine because, as Stamatopoulou-Robbins argues, first of all, Palestinians understand their “environment” as a context of material and political inundation; second, because infrastructures that deal with waste—quasi-state and otherwise—such as landfills or refuse markets are visible, malodorous, and in close proximity to Palestinians in their everyday lives; and finally, because Palestinians improvise and build infrastructures to mitigate, spread, and manage waste that engender novel forms and practices of economic life, sociality, and ethics for an occupied population fixed in place.

While Israel encroaches on lands that house Palestinians, and that have been agreed to be under Palestinian control, waste does not respect agreements or borders, nor can it be jailed or teargassed. Leakage is inherent to waste, which would seem to depoliticize cross-border, internationally-funded environmental security work. Stamatopoulou-Robbins convincingly argues that technical environmental security is intertwined with statecraft and deepens forms of practice and governance in which Palestine is treated as a depository for Israel’s refuse. International aid is a fundamental part of the scaffolding of occupation; the PA depends on foreign donors primarily concerned with “environmental security,” and works to navigate aid conditions and the “matter with no place to go” in a context of military occupation. Stamatopoulou-Robbins provides a framework for rethinking political violence and proposes defining governance as a new “model where life is shaped by the effects of state abandonment combined with governance by other, state-like actors. [That definition] parallels with contexts that appear to manifest pure abandonment, such as the poor black parts of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, or Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, but that may exist in more of a gray zone than might initially appear to be the case—a zone that Palestinians call the ‘phantom state’” (p. 211).

Waste Siege is a book about waste in Palestine, but more broadly about how multiple forms of infrastructure emerge as matters fundamental to state-like governance and social life. Palestine may be something of a control case where interventions are visibly structured by violence and dispossession. But the complex interplay of mobility and fixity, growth, barriers to growth, and accumulated waste is not unique to it. Palestine is under a siege generated in part by the expansive production of surplus. Things can circulate and enter—capital seeks new markets, endlessly generates goods and their replacements. But some of those processes find their movement slowed in a Palestine where few can leave, and where people and things accumulate. The idea of a “waste siege describes the state of stateless Palestine, [but] it is also a metaphor for a dying planet” (p. xi). Waste Siege asks important questions about the social lives of so-called natural threats and leakage, and politics around fixity and mobility; they are necessary questions everywhere, today.